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Focus Makes Perfect?

The old adage “practice makes perfect” always rubbed me the wrong way. Why? I don’t hate practice. I’m all for practice. Practice makes you better, but perfection is an unattainable goal. Call me negative (or better, a realist), but nothing is perfect. So while it’s not as catchy, I’m all on board for “practice makes better” - or whatever better idea you have. 

When I think about this phrase in research, I think about two things. Let’s start with “perfect.” I’ve said something to this effect plenty of times but it’s worth restating: Researchers’ aim for perfection often gets in the way of progress. If you know me (or even if you don’t), hopefully you know I champion doing good research - research you can be proud of that supports decisions you can stand behind. 

I have lived and breathed and preached data quality for perhaps too many years. But as researchers we also need to know when - to use another catchy phrase - “perfect becomes the enemy of good.” And that’s a phrase I can stand behind! Researchers often struggle to discern the difference between getting it right and getting it perfect. This rears its ugly head in many places, but especially when you’re trying to conduct research quickly to inform decisions that also need to be made quickly. 

Too often researchers default to an unnecessarily complicated and tortuous path to designing research and collecting data that by the time you’d get to gleaning insights the data is stale and the decision has been made. What beautiful, perfect, and useless data you have here! Of course there is a time and place to strive for whatever near perfection you strive for, but know when it’s ok to just be darn good.

Let me suggest one way to do so. Focus. I say to our customers all the time that an agile test should be focused on a key decision to be made. Notice I didn’t say decisions, but rather decision, singular. What is the decision you’re trying to make with this data? If you don’t know, then don’t bother conducting this research now. If you do know, great, let’s roll! Then think about what 1 or 2 key questions you need to answer to allow you to make this decision.

impact driven research

What exactly do you want to explore? This doesn’t mean you should only ask 1 or 2 questions. While we like to keep our tests under 10 questions, there is a bit of room for exploration as long as it’s related to the decision to be made. But there is no time (or space) for tangents. If you focus on the decision to be made and ensure all questions are tied to that decision, you know what? When you get the data you know exactly what to look for and how you can immediately use it to inform decisions. That magic of seeing research come to life because it helps you to make an informed and de-risked decision happens in hours, not days or weeks. And this all happens because you focused. 

The exercise in designing agile research can have ancillary benefits as you switch gears to design more thorough or broad-sweeping studies. That’s because when you’re so focused on focusing, you become more efficient in what you ask and how you ask it. So, will focus make you perfect? Of course not. But it will make you a better researcher — and that’s pretty darn good.

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